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Critics Say France's Sarkozy Not Helping Gaza

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, is on a mission to the Middle East. He says he's in search of a cease-fire. This was his job when he was head of the European Union, which is deeply involved in the Middle East. It's not formally his job anymore, because his country no longer holds the European Union presidency. Still, Sarkozy says it's France's duty to look for all paths to peace. His critics are saying the French president is on a power trip, and they accuse Sarkozy of muddying European Union efforts to broker a cease-fire. Eleanor Beardsley has this report.

(Soundbite of French National Anthem)

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: In his televised New Year's address, Sarkozy listed his accomplishments as dynamic leader of the European Union. He boasted that he had not just shaped the destiny of France, but that of the whole world. Then he made it clear that he had no intention of taking a backseat.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: France will continue to act in Africa, in Asia, and of course in the Middle East, said Sarkozy, because it is France's duty to fight for peace and human rights.

"Is France too small for Sarkozy?" read one magazine headline. Daily newspaper Le Monde wrote, "Sarkozy's greatest fear is again becoming the president of an average country confronted by recession and soaring unemployment." Political analyst Dominique Moisi says Sarkozy thrives on the international stage.

Mr. DOMINIQUE MOISI (French Political Analyst): Well, he wants to exist. When he was president of the European Union, the Americans had just a lame-duck president. And he knows he has a short period of time before the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States where he can be, so to speak, alone.

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BEARDSLEY: But Sarkozy is not alone in the Middle East. There is an official EU delegation there led by the European Union's current head, the Czech Republic. While one of Sarkozy's top aides said there was no competition between the two delegations, another of his Cabinet members hinted at French feelings that the Czechs might not be quite up to the job.

(Soundbite of Europe 1 radio broadcast)

BEARDSLEY: Speaking on Europe 1 radio, French Budget Minister Eric Woerth said Sarkozy was the only leader capable of undertaking such a peace initiative.

Mr. ERIC WOERTH (French Budget Minister): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We'll see what the Czech presidency is all about in time, but in all honesty the Czech and French idea of Europe is not exactly the same thing, said Woerth. Sarkozy does have a few points in his favor. With a Jewish grandfather, he is seen as a true friend of Israel. France also has longstanding relations with many Arab states. Even Sarkozys' detractors admit he is one of the few world leaders trusted in both camps. He was not shy about condemning both the Israeli army's incursion into Gaza and Hamas' rockets in meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders yesterday.

Sarkozy hopes to push regional leaders to play a bigger role in resolving the crisis in visits to Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. The French press says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad owes Sarkozy a favor, since he brought him out of diplomatic isolation with a trip to Paris last summer. Analyst Dominique Moisi.

Mr. MOISI: The trip to Damascus and the encounter with the Syrian president is probably the most significant, the most original, and the most important part of his trip.

BEARDSLEY: Last night, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused Sarkozy's call for a cease-fire in a meeting between the two leaders. No one in France holds out much hope for Sarkozy's success. Moisi calls his trip politically risky, but says it is a risk worth taking. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.